The demand for Singer’s products steadily declined after WWII for various reasons, and with it went near guaranteed employment for “Singer families”. At one time, almost every citizen in Elizabeth knew a relative, friend or neighbor that worked there. But by 1980, the company’s employee roster had shrunk to about 2,300 people, with Singer diversifying its business to the point that sewing machines were a very small part of the manufacturing operations in Elizabeth.
Singer Plant Closing: A Way of Life Ends read the headline February 19, 1982 in the New York Times
The Singer Company is closing its mammoth plant here. Moving on to a marketing strategy of more cost-effective foreign production and diversification in aerospace products, it is finished with this aging city now.
So intertwined have their lives become – this company and city – during their 109 years together that many people here can only shake their heads and say, as Morris Finkel did, “It just doesn’t seem possible.”
It has been more than a professional relationship, and the community now feels scorned. “Working at the Singer plant, was a way of life,” said Mr. Finkel, who was there for 44 years. “It was the natural thing for a young man coming out of high school to do. Everyone in town seems to have worked there at some point.”
When Singer closed the door for good on the plant in 1982, about 950 workers remained. This pattern of once thriving industries shuttering their factories and plants became epidemic in Elizabeth and soon only empty buildings remained to watch the once prosperous city go into a steady decline.
While the reasons for industrial decline are complex, for the people left behind as the factories shuttered, it wasn’t; they were left without a comparable paying job or opportunity.
Kurt Lucas is one such person. I met him the first night I went to photograph the building and introduced myself. After high school, Kurt started working at a steel mill in nearby Hillside, NJ which provided a good steady paycheck. About 20 years into his employment, his company went through a consolidation and moved operations down South to save labor costs, which left him without a job.
He eventually landed a new job as a security guard at the former Singer complex which is now called the Elizabeth Industrial Park. The complex, which employed 10,000 workers at its height, now supports about 300 jobs, spread out among 30 companies or so that lease space there for warehousing and light manufacturing. Kurt is happy to have one of those jobs as he has been employed there by the complex’s owner for about 15 years. While he earns a modest $10.00 per hour, it’s steady employment and his boss allows him to work an extra shift per week to supplement his income.
Kurt is a big guy, with diabetes and financial struggles, but his sunny deposition and sense of humor have allowed him to persevere through what many would consider to be tough times. During his long night shifts, he uses his down-time to write jokes in his spiral bound notebook. To date, he has filled three notebooks and never misses a chance to practice a new joke on a willing audience of friends or at hospital social sessions.
I first met Kurt just a week after the presidential election and this situation struck me as a microcosm of the economic and social changes reflected in the mood of disenfranchised voters nationally. Elizabeth was once a thriving, wealthy city due to the manufacturing jobs that were located here, with Singer’s demise being typical. People of Kurt’s age recall a flourishing community and plentiful working opportunities that the industrial economy provided. Singer and Kurt epitomize the human cost of technological progress and globalism that have impacted many traditional blue collar workers.
From the same NY Times article, written 35 years ago.
“During the lunch hour at Shoban’s, a shot-and-a-beer bar across First Street from the plant’s main gate, a Singer supervisor wondered aloud whether the United States was not turning into a nation of two kinds of people: white-collar managers for multinational companies that produced their products overseas, and unemployed workers.”
Kurt didn’t vote because he didn’t think his vote mattered, but wanted the change that Trump was championing. Seeing firsthand what is left of Elizabeth’s industrial heritage and hearing Kurt’s story, I now better understand why the election outcome was as it is.
While I came to photograph the physical building, I left with a deeper understanding of the relationship between these objects that I relish and the human side that is their soul. That connection between the two is an area that I want to explore more and will hopefully lead me to better and more meaningful photography.